Paddington is well-known for its railway station, but perhaps not so well known for its canal, but things are changing.
The easiest access to the canal basin is from the far end of the station next to the Hammersmith & City (H&C) underground, but until the Waterside Regeneration project got under way there would have been no access here at all.
It was different back in the19thc though when the area would have been a hive of activity, a time when goods were transported around the country through a large network of canals. Paddington provided an ideal location for a canal terminus for several reasons, but principally because the area was flat and had easy road connections into central London.
Paddington Basin was opened in 1801 at the end of the ‘Paddington Arm’ of the Grand Union Canal, whose main line still runs for 138 miles between Birmingham and London (Brentford). There are several arms that lead off from the main line including this one which stretches for 13½ miles between Bulls Bridge at Hayes and Paddington Basin.
The coming of the railways also eventually meant the decline of the canals. Goods could be transported more cheaply by rail than by barge, but what happened to the canal system also happened to the rail network when it became cheaper to transport goods by road rather than rail, and by the 1980s Paddington was left with a desolate wasteland of a redundant canal and an obsolete goods yard.
With the arrival of the millennium a regeneration package was put in place, and although the project has yet to be completed, the last twenty years has seen the area around Paddington Basin transformed.
When you exit Paddington station next to the H&C underground you can go one of two ways. Turning right will take you to the end of the canal, past St. Mary’s Hospital to what is now referred to as Merchant Square. Turning left will take you along the canal to what the marketing people now call Paddington Central, and then on to Little Venice.
Merchant Square is now a modern mix of offices, homes, shops and leisure facilities and includes the new head offices of Marks and Spencer and two unusual footbridges – the Rolling Bridge and the Fan Bridge – unusual because of the way that they operate.
If there’s one thing that should have been modernised and hasn’t is St Mary’s Hospital which is not only a major teaching hospital, but also where Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. There were plans to create a ‘Health Campus’ combining St. Mary’s with two other hospitals that needed resuscitating – the Royal Brompton and Harefield, but up to now nothing has happened.
Paddington Central has seen most of the investment go into modern buildings centred around Sheldon Square, which is more of an amphitheatre than a square, and somewhere office workers find convenient for spending their lunch breaks on a sunny day.
Not much further along is Little Venice, where the Grand Union Canal is met by the Regent’s Canal at Browning’s Pool.
Named after the poet Robert Browning who lived in the adjacent Warwick Crescent, Browning’s Pool is the focal point of Little Venice and the most popular part of the canal. On the other side of Horse Bridge is Rembrandt Gardens, a nice spot to watch the boats from under the willow trees, or if you’re feeling more energetic you can go for a walk along the Regent’s Canal towards Regent’s Park, London Zoo, and Camden Market. The total length of the canal is around 8½ miles and ends at Limehouse Basin.
The area around here is attractively laid out with white stucco buildings and villas, and part of Maida Vale. There’s a tube station in Warwick Avenue, which may sound familiar if you’re a fan of Duffy, who had a Top Ten hit wit a song of the same name in 2008.
If you prefer not to stretch your legs too much, it’s possible to take a boat ride to Camden from Little Venice, or perhaps just take a break at the Waterside Café.
As I said earlier, the re-development of this part of Paddington isn’t yet complete, but it’s come a long way from what it used to be like. If possible, try and allow some extra time if you have a train to catch, and rather than spend it on the station’s concourse, take a walk in the fresh air along the canal instead. Believe me, it’s much nicer.